Josh Kurtz: Doug Duncan’s Next Act

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By Josh Kurtz

With the Maryland political community focused on the grinding legislative session in Annapolis and the acrimonious -- and increasingly competitive -- Democratic primary in the 6th congressional district, a conspicuous, interesting story isn’t getting much notice: Doug Duncan has come out of hibernation.

Duncan, the former Montgomery County executive who withdrew from the 2006 gubernatorial election due to clinical depression and then left a high-ranking post at the University of Maryland under confusing circumstances, suddenly seems to be everywhere.

It started when he endorsed John Delaney, the upstart millionaire businessman who is now a major player in the 6th district primary, after briefly pondering running for the seat himself. Duncan wasn’t the biggest endorsement Delaney snared -- he’s subsequently won the backing of Bill Clinton and The Washington Post, the latter of which could be a real game changer.

But Duncan’s endorsement was the first of any consequence, and he backed up his support by cutting radio spots for Delaney and going door to door with him. If Delaney upsets state Sen. Rob Garagiola, the Democratic establishment choice, in next month’s primary, Duncan can rightfully claim a share of the credit.

Next, Duncan penned an opinion piece in the Post, in his role as chairman of the year-old group the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, calling for more transportation and infrastructure spending throughout the state. He recently served as emcee at the group’s first major public meeting.

Now, political insiders are reporting Duncan sightings everywhere -- at a Democratic brunch, at an awards luncheon for law enforcement officers, at a retirement celebration for a prominent local publisher, and in the halls of county government buildings in Rockville. Duncan is vacuuming up political intelligence, people say, and is starting to put out the word that he himself could be a candidate for office in 2014, maybe for his old job or for state comptroller.

What are we to make of all this?

Duncan, in an interview yesterday, wouldn’t rule out a run in 2014, but said for now he is focused almost exclusively on electing Delaney.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in the future?” he says.

Duncan said he was moved to help Delaney, who he has known for years, because he didn’t like the way the congressional district lines in Annapolis were drawn to elect Garagiola.

“I looked at the race myself and thought I didn’t want to serve in Congress,” he said. “But I was outraged with what they did to [Rep. Chris] Van Hollen and to Montgomery County. I was so upset that Annapolis was handpicking who the congressman was going to be for a large part of Montgomery County.”

It’s not as if Duncan completely vanished off the face of the Earth after short-circuiting his 2006 campaign and then leaving the job at College Park. There have been occasional sightings at public events, as he’s worked to build a consulting business. And he deservedly won kudos for the candid way in which he publicly addressed his struggle with depression.

When Rich Parsons, a former loyal Duncan lieutenant whose resume includes a stint as president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, and Lon Anderson, the longtime regional AAA lobbyist, enlisted Duncan to become the figurehead of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, he readily accepted. And for these guys, it was like getting the band together again. No one carried the torch longer for the ICC after Parris Glendening pulled the plug on the proposed highway than Parsons did, and Duncan and Anderson were right there alongside him, applying the political pressure.

So along with the Delaney campaign, it‘s a good issue for Duncan‘s re-entry into the public discourse, one he‘s already closely associated with. (It’s kind of ironic, though, that as the voices of the NIMBY’s have faded in Maryland in recent years, and in Montgomery County specifically, and a consensus has built up that transportation and infrastructure spending is extremely important, governments are now broke, and there‘s no reliable funding stream for projects of any magnitude.)

Assuming Duncan really wants a political future, what are his prospects?

As of January, he had about $294,000 in his campaign treasury, left over from his prior campaigns, a decent head start for either the county executive or comptroller races. And he’s only 56, so age is not an issue.

But it’s a tough leap from Has-Been Island, where other former Maryland officeholders, like Wayne Curry and Janet Owens and Jim Smith reside in unhappy exile, forever floating themselves as possible contenders for this and that office, to an actual, credible candidacy. And Parsons notwithstanding, the people who made Duncan’s political and communications operation so successful for so long have largely scattered to the winds.

Late last year, a couple of months before Duncan became a regular again on the local mashed potatoes circuit, a former top adviser of his told me that the only office Duncan is really interested in seeking is governor. That option seems shut off to him -- certainly for 2014, if not forever.

Given the line-up of potential candidates for comptroller, including Owens, state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, Del. Galen Clagett, Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt, and Duncan’s old friend, state House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, Duncan would be competitive. But other than the statewide platform, comptroller is a job with limitations, and it’s hard to imagine Duncan actually wanting it. After all, he was offered the gig on a silver platter in 1998, when Louie Goldstein died, and he turned it down. It would be kind of sad to see him fighting for it 16 years later (also there‘s no guarantee that the current occupant, Peter Franchot, is going anywhere).

A return engagement as county executive is more intriguing for a variety of reasons.

Even more than Curry, a history-making trailblazer, Duncan is an iconic figure, more responsible than anyone for the way Montgomery County looks now, and probably also more responsible -- for better and worse -- for the way politics are practiced there. And after two terms of Ike Leggett’s “meh” administration, one defined by fiscal restraints and Leggett’s penchant for behind-the-scenes diplomacy, Duncan’s 12 bold years on the job seem all the bolder.

But iconic doesn’t necessarily mean popular. Duncan ran roughshod over a lot of people during all that time. Never a natural glad-hander, he was thin-skinned and let resentments fester. The roster of possible candidates for county executive in 2014, assuming Leggett makes good on his promise to move on -- Del. Ben Kramer and Councilmembers Phil Andrews, Marc Elrich, Valerie Ervin and George Leventhal, among others -- is far from perfect, but that hardly means there will be a clamor for Duncan’s return.

And, of course, Duncan’s depression confession won’t be far from voters’ minds; certainly the insiders will be talking. Even in once-genteel Montgomery County, politics are a lot uglier than they used to be; it’s easy enough to imagine an unscrupulous opponent trying to take advantage.

When he was an up and comer, Duncan was seen as risk-averse, but usually, if grudgingly, wound up as a very reliable team player for state Democrats. His forceful support of Delaney this year suggests something different – a Duncan with nothing to lose, unafraid to poke his finger in the establishment’s eye. That’s noteworthy.

A Duncan comeback changes the state and local political calculation in innumerable ways, making it awfully fun to speculate about. But between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot.

So yes, Doug Duncan is back. The question is, how far, really?

“I am interested in getting back involved,” Duncan says. “What that means – I don’t know yet.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Marital Difficulties

Prince George’s Agonistes

Annapolis Bits

A Grown-up David in a World of Juvenile Goliaths

Rich Man, Poor Campaign?

The Brawl We Won’t Be Seeing Here (Plus: Women Emerge in Maryland)

Free Shot

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.